2001-10-11 / Arts & Entertainment

Book News Horror Writers Reunite

Associated Press Writer
By Ted Anthony
Book News Horror Writers Reunite By Ted Anthony Associated Press Writer

Book News
Horror Writers Reunite

Recent events in America have made one thing clear: There are far worse horrors than those Stephen King and Peter Straub can concoct.

We look to horror fiction when we need catharsis, when we need to experience imaginary terrors that transcend real life. But even viewed through that lens, "Black House" (Random House, 840 pages, $28.95) the second collaboration between the maestros of human chaos, is a competently spun horror tale but is just not enough.

First, let’s assume that you haven’t read "The Talisman," the 1981 novel that was the first King-Straub collaboration — or at least haven’t read it in two decades. "Black House" draws upon some of the same characters and the same imaginary world as the earlier work, chief among them a netherworld dubbed "the Territories."

The plot: Children are disappearing from the streets of the small western Wisconsin town of French Landing, home to the usual cast of colorful Americans that populate King’s novels. The culprit is a particularly nasty killer dubbed "the Fisherman," who likes to dine on certain parts of his prey and has some connection to a weird house in the woods that no one seems able to find.

One by one, in a rather odd and obtrusively omniscient way, we are introduced to each of the characters in this symphony of horror.

There are Dale Gilbertson, the beleaguered chief of police who is having little success tracking the Fisherman; Wendell Green, an obnoxious, self-righteous local newspaper reporter cut from the Drudge mold; and Charles Burnside, a patient at the local nursing home who alienates all who cross his path.

There is the hulking Beezer St. Pierre, a menacing but protagonistic biker who quotes philosophers and is grappling with the death of his daughter, Amy, at the hands of the Fisherman.

Also, Henry Leyden, the blind disc jockey of many voices whose wisdom offsets his lack of sight; young baseball-card-collecting Ty Marshall, who may be in more danger than he knows; and Ty’s mother, Judy, who, apparently, is going slowly mad in the oddest of ways, falling into trances and spewing out words such as "Gorg" and "Abbalah."

Finally and most important is Jack Sawyer, adolescent hero of "The Talisman" and now, in his 30s, a former Los Angeles police officer who has inexplicably (it seems) retired early to French Landing.

Chief Gilbertson begs for and finally receives Sawyer’s help in the hunt for the Fisherman, and the tale is under way — a tale of "slippage," as King and Straub dub the encroaching evil and disarray that descend upon French Landing.

Unlike in most of King’s work, which develops characters so well that they seem able to walk off the page, here we never really get a sense of Jack Sawyer _ or of many of the supporting players in the novel. The best character, Henry Leyden, always seems poised to become something fascinating but never quite transcends the "blind guy who can see things we can’t" stereotype.

Several other things don’t work. The omniscient device by which the reader visits characters _ "Let us travel through the front door and see ...’’ _ seems to be a method King and Straub used as transition between the parts each wrote. But it becomes tiresome after a while, and is something that probably wouldn’t have been necessary if the book had been written by one author.

And though there are parts of the netherworld that are quite vivid, much of it seems a bland, two-dimensional setting pulled from a Brothers Grimm tale.

Setting is so important in tales like this, but when characters visit the Territories _ no more will be said for fear of giving things away _ the life and zip seem to drain from the tale. Except during a few scenes late in the book, it never feels real and visceral in the way French Landing often does.

All of this is not to say that "Black House" isn’t engrossing and enjoyable. It is. Anything written by two authors of this talent can’t help but be readable. The writing crackles with life, and the plot moves along at a pleasing pace.

So you probably won’t go away from "Black House" disappointed. But odds are, a few days later, you won’t remember that much about it either.

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